In October and again in December, as the third severe drought this century was entering its third year, not one but two atmospheric rivers struck California. These two storm systems dumped torrents of rain with historic intensity. More than 100 million acre-feet of water poured out of the skies, into the rivers . . . and out to sea. Almost none of it was captured by reservoirs or diverted into aquifers. Since December, not one big storm has struck the state. After a completely dry winter, a few minor storms in April and May were too little too late.
California’s reservoirs are at critical lows, allocations to farmers are in many cases down to zero, and urban water districts are tapping their last reserves. In some areas of Southern California, water agencies are now penalizing residential “water wasters” by coming onto their property and installing flow restrictors.
In 2014, 67 percent of California voters approved Proposition 1 to fund water storage projects. Eight years later, not a single project has begun construction. Meanwhile, in Southern California, a proposed desalination plant in Huntington Beach that could produce 60,000 acre-feet per year of freshwater from the ocean has been held up by a mostly hostile bureaucracy and litigation for over 20 years. As you read this, the project faces another major hurdle—on May 12, the California Coastal Commission Board might defy the recommendation of its staff and grant “final” approval. But the board’s approval may come with so many conditions that, in effect, it would be another denial. Another possibility is the army of litigants that for years have opposed the plant will find yet another basis for a lawsuit.
When it comes to water in California, there is a robust political consensus that something has to be done. There is agreement that multi-year droughts will leave Californians with inadequate water supplies; that once a drought enters its third or fourth year, the demands of the environment, agriculture, and urban water consumers are far in excess of what is deliverable. And that’s where we are today.
Back in the summer of 2021, knowing there was broad agreement about the problem, I began to canvas the state to build support for a ballot initiative that would fund water projects. I entered into this project with only a basic knowledge of water policy. My goal was to talk with as many experts as possible in order to come up with a comprehensive solution that, if approved by voters, would end water scarcity in California forever.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Water, Then and Now
Water politics in California isn’t what it once was. The water infrastructure that transports water from mountainous northern watersheds to coastal cities mainly in the southern part of the state remains the biggest plumbing system in the world. The first major construction began over a century ago. To supply water to the burgeoning cities of Southern California, the Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed in 1913. The Hetch Hetchy dam and aqueduct, supplying water to San Francisco, was completed in 1934.
Major water projects in California were ongoing in the decades that followed. The Federal Bureau of Reclamation finished building the Shasta Dam in 1945, creating what remains the biggest reservoir in California. The famed California State Water Project, with its centerpiece the California Aqueduct, completed most of its big projects in the 1960s. These highlights barely begin to describe the scale of the investments that were made or the magnitude of the projects that were built.
How California built a system of reservoirs and aqueducts that enables a mostly arid state to support a population of 40 million and some of the most productive farmland in the world is an epic story. A detailed accounting can be found in Marc Reisner’s 1986 classic, Cadillac Desert. An even more detailed and more recent source is The Great Thirst, published by Norris Hundley, Jr. in 2001. But the historic achievements of earlier generations of Californians to supply this new civilization with enough water to thrive have not been matched in recent years. California’s water infrastructure has been neglected. In the face of epic droughts and soaring demand, these days, the only answer California’s politicians have been able to agree on is water rationing.
Such is the state of water politics today. There is universal recognition that the Golden State has a water supply crisis, but every solution that involves major new construction is hopelessly gridlocked. Around the state, incremental and inadequate steps are taken, but there is no statewide proposal to solve the crisis. Water rationing, typically referred to using the less threatening term “conservation,” is the only solution. While some activist groups in California truly believe conservation is all that will ever be necessary, it is mostly imposed on Californians by default.
The Basics of Water Supply and Demand in California
After the two big storms in the fall of 2021, the San Jose Mercury-News on January 1 published an article with the encouraging headline, “California has topped last season’s rainfall. Will trend continue in 2022?” Quoting the National Weather Service, the article announced that the “massive October atmospheric river and wet December” delivered 33.9 trillion gallons of rain to the state. This exceeded the 33.6 trillion gallons that fell during the entire previous water year, from October 2020 through September 2021.
To express this amount in acre-feet helps put this in perspective: 33.9 trillion gallons is 104 million acre-feet. According to data compiled by the California Department of Water Resources, over the 10-year period from 2011 through 2020, 180 million acre-feet of rain fell each year in California on average. The table below shows how 180 million acre-feet of water is used. Most of it either evaporates, percolates, or eventually makes its way to the ocean. But a significant amount is diverted for either urban, agricultural, or environmental use.
For the years 2011 through 2015, the data on this chart comes from the 2018 update of the California Water Plan, prepared by the California Department of Water Resources. Data for 2016 and 2018 was compiled on request by engineers working for the Department of Water Resources; they are still working on the 2017 data. For these most recent seven years for which complete data is available, diversions for urban, agricultural, and environmental purposes averaged 75.3 million acre-feet per year.
The table shows urban water use in California accounts for a relatively small percentage of the total. Just over 10 percent of California’s water serves towns and cities, whereas the remaining 90 percent is split nearly evenly between agricultural irrigation and maintaining healthy ecosystems. While this obvious disparity could be the basis for suggesting that merely reducing allocations for farms and the environment should be enough to solve challenges of water scarcity, the basis for that argument is that water policy in California must be a zero-sum game. That is a false premise. It can be invalidated by investing in new water supply infrastructure and upgrades to existing water infrastructure.
The next table, also taken from the 2018 update to the California Water Plan, with data for 2016 and 2018 obtained from the Department of Water Resources, shows the sources of the 75.3 million acre-feet per year of average annual water diversions. Analyzing this table will quickly reveal the vulnerability of California’s current water supply.
To begin with, the water California imports via the Colorado Aqueduct, nearly 5 million acre-feet per year, relies on the Colorado River runoff that is stored in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which are both at lower levels than they’ve been since those massive reservoirs were first built and filled up. At the same time as the entire Colorado River watershed continues to suffer a blistering multi-year drought, the burgeoning cities of Las Vegas and Phoenix are asserting their water rights. In the years to come, it is prudent to plan for a dramatic reduction in the amount of Colorado River water that will be delivered to California’s farms and cities.
Groundwater extraction, currently averaging 18.7 million acre-feet per year, is also under threat. Withdrawing water from aquifers faster than they can be replenished with percolating runoff has caused wells to dry up, led to ground subsidence, and in some cases, is causing underground aquifers to collapse and degrade to the point where they no longer can be refilled. To restore aquifers as a sustainable source of water storage and supply, not only will annual withdrawals need to drop well below 18.7 million acre-feet per year, but until the water levels in the aquifers are restored, total annual withdrawals need to be less than the annual amount of natural recharge.
As if that isn’t enough, the line items on the table indicating local, state, and federal projects refer primarily to sources of water that rely on California’s rivers, which in most cases rely on California’s Sierra snowpack. Because most of California’s reservoirs are in-stream, their first priority is to prevent flooding. For this reason, they cannot be used to store water from early season storms, such as the deluge that fell in December 2021. If those storms are allowed to fill these reservoirs, should a late-season storm hit the state, there would be no reservoir capacity left to buffer the runoff and prevent flooding. But when the snowpack fails to develop, and no late-season rainstorms inundate the state, summer arrives and the reservoirs are empty.
All of these factors combine to indicate a worst-case scenario that is potentially catastrophic. It raises the question of why the only significant statewide policy priority has been conservation. Without Colorado River water, unimpeded access to groundwater, or a viable snowpack, the “conservation” solution is disastrous: Every household will be limited to 40 gallons per person per day, outdoor watering will be prohibited, and a million acres of farmland will be taken out of production. Is that the future Californians are prepared to accept? Because that is the course Californians are on today.
There is an alternative. Runoff from the storms like the one that blasted through California last December can be diverted into percolation basins and into off-stream reservoirs. Indoor urban water, nearly 3 million acre-feet per year, can be treated to higher standards and reused over and over. So why isn’t the Sites Reservoir, an off-stream reservoir that is a twin to the already existing San Luis Reservoir (built in the 1960s) already completed? Its construction was approved by voters eight years ago. Why aren’t two or three more massive off-stream reservoirs already built and operating in California?
For that matter, why isn’t urban water recycling already underway in every urban county in California? Only one major metropolitan area, Orange County, recycles 100 percent of its wastewater. Why aren’t these desperately needed projects being constructed?
There is a reason.
In our attempt to qualify an initiative to fund water supply projects, we encountered the opposition. There is a loose, extremely powerful coalition of special interests in California that want water scarcity. In some cases, that policy serves their financial interests. In other cases, well-intentioned zealots have embraced politically imposed water scarcity in the misguided belief that it will help the environment. Some of the opposition was more a function of gridlock than disagreement on principle.
In the opposition to more water projects, we encountered every conceivable motivation. There was avarice and selflessness, misanthropy and empathy. There were delusional arguments and arguments of clarifying lucidity; pragmatism and idealism. But the intricate array of political forces that influence water policy in California today, and their underlying ideologies and motivations, reduce to only one de facto consensus: conserve.
But conservation is not enough.
We also learned that the obstructionist consensus could be changed with more time. Countless informed observers and political power brokers assured us, usually off the record, that new, big water projects must be built. The financing for these projects is not an insurmountable obstacle, nor are there technical constraints apart from the daunting scale of what is required.
To begin with, there are sustainable ways to create water abundance. And in normal years, the presence of lawns and the luxury of lengthy showers is a sign not of waste, but of resilience. These luxuries signify necessary surpluses that guarantee sufficient water in those extraordinary times when the water supply is disrupted. Having redundant sources of water in California not only bestows the capacity to withstand a crippling multi-year drought but also to survive in the event of civil disruption or natural catastrophes that disable, for example, the Edmonston pumps that push millions of acre-feet of water from the California Aqueduct over the Tehachapi Mountains into Los Angeles.
Water is the foundation of civilization. It is absurd that Californians, living in the wealthiest and most innovative place on earth, cannot design abundance into their water infrastructure. With abundant water, California offers its residents a far more enjoyable quality of life in the form of fewer restrictions on residential consumption. Abundant water also means that Californians can develop more housing, for which developers cannot obtain permits without first identifying a reliable water supply. It means that California can remain an agricultural superpower, with affordable food for in-state sales and export. It enables essential businesses that consume water to flourish.
This Isn’t Just a California Problem
The remaining installments of this report will chronicle our attempt to qualify an initiative designed to fund massive investment in water supply projects. As part of that story, we’ll look at different categories of water projects, and the many groups that shape—and block—water policy in California. The story is about more than water, however. And it is of concern to everyone, not just Californians.
The challenge of water scarcity and the reasons for it are mirrored in other forms of politically contrived scarcity: not just water but land for housing, practical transportation infrastructure, energy, timber, and other natural resources. The entire consensus on all of these building blocks of modern civilization must change from a scarcity agenda to embrace investment in sustainable abundance.
Doing this creates the opportunity to create a future that nurtures upward mobility, affirms the economic aspirations of emerging communities and nations, and reduces the profits and prerogatives of established corporate and state rent-seekers by forcing them to compete. This is the abundance choice.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on the website California Globe.